As much as any other instrument, the guitar has been instrumental in defining the reach and depth of ECM Records. It's captured in full glow on three releases from the label's Rarum series, featuring Pat Metheny, Egberto Gismonti, and John Abercrombie.
While the sure-fire star power from that list comes in the form of Pat Metheny, his 1975-84 work is likely unfamiliar to legions of fans who signed on to his later Geffen material and the lovely Verve date Beyond the Missouri Sky with Charlie Haden. John Abercrombie and Egberto Gismonti also have relatively high profileshaving appeared on 43 and 14 records on the label, respectivelyand together with Bill Frisell and Ralph Towner, they round out ECM's heavy hitters on the axe.
The Rarum series offers artists the right to choose from their own material and compose their own liner notes. Metheny does the best by far with the notes, though each player has something personal to say. You won't find much in common among these three players' styles. Metheny's style is robust, friendly, and folksy; Abercrombie sweeps out and around with broad gestures of electric sound; and Gismonti keeps to his own idiosyncratic path through Brazilian and folk music. Read on to learn more...
(Note: see below for links to other Rarum reviews.)
Rarum IX: Selected Recordings
Mainstream Pat Metheny fans will find in his Rarum a series of surprises, given his more popular later work with the famed Pat Metheny Group. The guitarist did not take long to accrue a loyal audienceas was his intent, as early as 1975's Bright Size Lifeand he presented a total picture: player, leader, composer, and all-around musician. Whether you are partial to his generally soft tone and approach is another matter best left out of this consideration. Let's put it this way: most of this music will sound vaguely familiar to those who haven't heard Metheny's 1975-84 ECM work.
And those in search of information, perspective, and insight will do well to read his eleven dense pages of commentary on the music; those in search of bad hairdos will find them in abundance as well. "Phase Dance" ( Pat Metheny Group, 1978) places Metheny in the company of Group mainstays Lyle Mays, Mark Egan, and Dan Gottlieb with some of the most propulsive waves of sound every put to wax. His effected guitar sounds great in this electric setting.
Speaking of sounding great, Jaco Pastorius's appearance on "Bright Size Life" offers yet more testimony for his ability to weave forward lines within and across barlines. Straight-ahead jazz rears its head on the all- star "Everyday (I Thank You)" (recorded in 1980 with Brecker, Haden, and DeJohnette), from one of my earliest exposures to proper jazz, 80/81. Horace Silver's "Lonely Woman" ( Rejoicing, 1983) gets a softened, melancholic trio treatment with Billy Higgins applying his usual deft brushwork.
Three more Group pieces follow down the road: "Airstream" ( American Garage ), a piece of softpurists will consider it too softAmericana; "Are You Going With Me?" ( Travels, 1982), pominently displaying the influence of Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos but keeping things thoroughly paced; and "The First Circle" ( First Circle, 1984), a fully-matured hunk of joy with Pedro Aznar on guitar and voice.
Rarum XI: Selected Recordings
Along with Ralph Towner, Egberto Gismonti is one of ECM's leading protagonists of the acoustic guitar. His music ranges from clean, New-Agey space to full-intensity group interaction. He's not afraid to pick up a variety of other instruments, including the "cooking bells" of "Selva Amazonica," from 1978's Solo, for example. (They do sound nice and bright.) And he is fully devoted to exploring and expanding the music of his native Brazil; in fact, he's the most outstanding exponent of non-European music in the ECM catalog, which has become open to so-called "world music" over the course of its growth. But however direct his intentions may seem to be, their realization comes across as quiet oblique in many cases.
All that said, it can be quite difficult to separate the strands in Gismonti's work. In solo settings (there are three pieces represented here), of course, that's made a lot easier by the reduced complexitybut such reduction does not apply to the guitarist's expansive approach to space and texture. "Cavaquinho" takes an understated, quiet approach, "Lundu" percolates with popping energy, and the aforementioned "Selva Amazonica" emphasizes extended resonance. (Try not to pay too much attention to his indulgent, out-of-tune singing on this one, an unfortunate feature which also scars two other tracks on this compilation.)
Percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, who joins in on "Kalimba" ( Sol Do Meio Dia, 1977), delivers almost funky berimbau playing which serves as counterpoint to Gismonti's swirling detour on the kalimba, and "Bianca" ( Duas Vozes , 1984), a more spacious essay with minor melodies. Guitar takes a front stage on two quartet pieces from Infancia, (1990) probably the best examples of Gismonti's playing in this relatively expanded setting. The six-minute "Frevo" takes a familiar melody into the context of a Symphony Orchestra, but the novelty doesn't retain its glow for long. (Listeners more attuned to larger ensemble work may disagree.)
Rarum XIV: Selected Recordings
If there's one distinction about John Abercrombie's work for ECM, it's that he has absolutely no aversion to fire. But unlike most practicing guitarists who aim for intensity through pure technique, studio tweaking, and/or fancy effects, Abercrombie keeps his mind open and pours out the energy as molten lava.
And that's the impression you get from several tracks of Abercrombie's Rarum collection. But key to the whole situation is that the guitarist tends to balance his forays into energy mode with more peaceful periods as well. Such is the case on "Timeless" (from his 1974 debut of the same name), a trio with organ player Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette. It starts out from total silence and very (very) gradually builds up through atmospheric textures and sparse instrumental passages, eventually swinging without disguise (credit DeJohnette's stick work on a whole lot of triplets) and closing out on a melancholy note, even though the note density has gone up substantially.
The two tracks with the Gateway Trioalso including bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnetterepresent some of the guitarist's finest work. "Sorcery I" ( Gateway, 1975) starts from a pit of dark unrest and grinds its way forward into unabashed abandon (note the lava outpouring here) and in and out of bulky, rocking swing. "Homecoming" ( Homecoming, 1994) has one of the most memorable groovy melodies, indeed hummable in the extreme, and it displays some of the characteristically intuitive interaction among these players.
Abercrombie pares things down for an unusual acoustic guitar duet with Ralph Towner ("Avenue," from the memorable duo record Sargasso Sea, 1976) and an extremely spacious multitracked solo "Memoir" ( Characters, 1977). Down the road comes "Big Music," with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine ( November, 1992), a perky but slippery thick-toned offering; and an open-ended, hard-swinging trio with organist Dan Wall and drummer Adam Nussbaum ("Carol's Carol," from While We're Young, 1992).
In all fairness it's safe to say that apart from Dave Holland 's own Rarum collection, this set is the most readily enjoyable of the series.
For more Rarum coverage, see:
2004 Rarums, Part 1: The Bassists
2004 Rarums, Part 2: The Drummers
Visit ECM Records on the web.
Tracks and Personnel
Pat Metheny: Rarum IX
Personnel: Pat Metheny; Jaco Pastorius; Bob Moses; Lyle Mays; Dan Gottlieb; Michael Brecker; Charlie Haden; Jack DeJohnette; Nana Vasconcelos; Steve Rodby; Pedro Aznar; Billy Higgins.
Tracks: Bright Size Life; Phase Dance; New Chautauqua; Airstream; Every Day (I Thank You); It's For You; Are You Going With Me?; The First Circle; Lonely Woman. Recordings 1975-1984.
Egberto Gismonti: Rarum XI
Personnel: Egberto Gismonti; Nando Carneiro; Zeca Assumpção; Jacques Morelenbaum; Nana Vasconcelos; Mauro Senise; Nene; Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra; Gintaras Rinkevicius.
Tracks: Ensaio de escola de samba (Danca dos Escravos); Kalimba (Lua Cheia); Cavaquinho; Bianca; Danca No. 1; 10 Anos; Lundu (azul); Frevo; Selva Amazonica - Pau Rolou. Recordings 1977-1995.
John Abercrombie: Rarum XIV
Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, electric guitar, mandolin; Joey Baron: drums; Richard Beirach: piano; Jack DeJohnette: drums; Peter Erskine: drums; Mark Feldman: violin; Jan Hammer: organ, synthesizer; Dave Holland: double-bass; Marc Johnson: double-bass; Adam Nussbaum: drums; John Taylor: piano; Ralph Towner: guitar; Dan Wall: organ; Kenny Wheeler: trumpet.
Tracks: Timeless; Sorcery I; Avenue; Memoir; Stray; Big Music; Ma Belle Héléne; Carol's Carol; Homecoming; Convolution. Recordings 1974-2000.